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Ed Peppitt (aka The Beacon Bike)

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100 days 3,500 miles 327 lighthouses

Day 96: Deal to Hythe via South Foreland, Dover and Folkestone

by | Feb 1, 2023

South Foreland

Home was just forty miles away, but timing the journey to meet (what I hoped would be) a sizeable crowd at Dungeness the next day meant slowing down, and finding a final guest house or hotel this evening. The lack of urgency justified my decision to lie in for a while, and take my time over breakfast.

When I eventually set off in the direction of the White Cliffs, the route was glorious, as NCN Route 1 follows the seafront past Walmer Castle and on to Kingsdown and St Margaret’s at Cliffe. Kingsdown itself was so sheltered by the cliffs to my right, and so exposed to the sea on my left, that my phone forgot where it was for a while, and I inadvertently joined a French mobile network. A text message welcomed me to France, and advised me to switch off mobile roaming if I was worried about data charges.

Looking at the cliffs all around me, I was worried that a steep incline stood between me and South Foreland, but it didn’t really ever come, and instead the rise was slow, long and steady. My map gave every indication of a series of small, residential lanes leading almost all the way to the lighthouse, but in fact the only viable route was a choice of rough gravel tracks.

There is a splendid National Trust tea shop at South Foreland, and I made good use of it before exploring the lighthouse itself. I sat on the grass outside with a mug of tea and a slice of coffee and walnut cake, and wondered how all these families around me had got here. With no parking to speak of, they must have walked over the cliffs on the coastal footpath, so I was surprised by how much energy they still needed to burn off.

I took a guided tour of the lighthouse, and was delighted to see how well the optics and other equipment have been preserved. I imagined the light could be brought back into service tomorrow, if needed. It was a beautifully clear early afternoon, and the Goodwin Sands were clearly visible on the near horizon.

The redundant, decaying low lighthouse was also easy to see from the top of the tower, and its lantern can be seen from the ground. These days, it is inaccessible, hidden within the walled grounds of a substantial private home close to the cliff edge. I wandered past the gated entrance to the house and attempted to climb a partially collapsed stone wall for a closer look. A barking dog quickly changed my mind.

At least I had seen it. As I discovered later, the house was on the market for a cool £5 million, and the estate agent’s brochure, which I found online, had a wonderful close-up photograph of the tower itself.

South Foreland

About six miles off the Deal coast lies the Goodwin Sands, a ten-miles long sandbank that has caused more than 2,000 vessels to be wrecked or run aground. A single storm in 1836 caused the loss of thirty vessels alone.

In 1636, Sir John Meldrum built a pair of lighthouses at South Foreland which, when lined up, marked the Goodwin Sands. These leading lights had open coal fires, and the towers were built from wood and plaster. They were fitted with sperm oil lamps in 1793, when lanterns were also installed, and the lights served until the middle of the nineteenth century, after Trinity House had taken over responsibility for them.

South Foreland

South Foreland

In 1843, Engineer in Chief James Walker rebuilt the high light with an octagonal stone tower, sixty-nine feet tall, with a circular lantern and stone gallery. A pair of keepers’ dwellings were attached. Three years later, in 1846, the low light was also rebuilt to a similar design. When vessels lined up the two lights, one above the other, the safe passage through the Goodwin Sands was marked.

South Foreland is notable for a number of tests and experiments conducted here throughout the nineteenth century. It was the first lighthouse to use an electric light, in 1858, and was the site chosen by Marconi for his experiments in wireless radio transmissions in 1898.

South Foreland Lower

South Foreland Lower

Following movement in the Goodwin Sands, the leading lights no longer indicated the safe passage, and the lower lighthouse was decommissioned in 1904. It is now in private hands, inaccessible and in poor condition. It is now only a few feet away from the eroded cliff edge.

The high light remained in service, changing from a fixed light to a rotating group flashing white light, which was visible for twenty-six miles. It was eventually decommissioned in 1988, and has been owned and maintained by the National Trust ever since.

Onwards towards Dover, and the views from the cliff top over the English Channel were truly spectacular. The Maritime & Coastguard Agency, whose co-ordination centre I passed, must have the finest sea views in the country.

At Dover Castle, I wanted a photograph of what remains of the Roman lighthouse tower that stands alongside the church. About a hundred yards in front of it, I reached an English Heritage kiosk, staffed by an absurdly posh and unobliging teenager, who delighted in telling me that if I wanted a photograph of the lighthouse I’d need to pay the £20 entrance fee. I attempted to explain what I was doing, and that this was the very last day of the journey, but she was not the slightest bit interested.

I regret the way I reacted, although if she had been even remotely civil with me it needn’t have happened. I paid the entrance fee, then sat by her kiosk and used every social media account I could access to criticise both English Heritage and their kiosk attendant. I have no doubt that £20 is a fair price to look around the castle, dungeons, wartime bunkers and underground hospital, but I simply wanted a photo of the lighthouse next to the church.

I was pleased to discover that by the time I had photographed the lighthouse, my complaint had been retweeted liberally, and my Facebook post was gathering momentum. As I passed the teenager’s kiosk, she cheerfully asked if I had found it alright, in a patronising sing-song sort of way. I raised two digits at her to indicate that I had.

Before re-mounting my bike, my phone pinged and I received a tweet of apology from English Heritage, along with an offer to refund my money. I declined the offer, but couldn’t resist returning to the kiosk to share the good news with Georgina.

Dover

Dover Pharos

Dover Pharos

There was once a pair of Roman octagonal lighthouse towers in Dover. They were built of rubble stone, on either side of the harbour entrance, and were known as the Eastern and Western Pharos.

Much of the eastern tower still stands, the most complete standing Roman building in England, and one of only three Roman lighthouses to survive. It stands alongside The Church of St Mary in Castro on Castle Hill, within the perimeter wall of the medieval Dover Castle.

There are four lighthouses on the various piers and breakwaters that make up the harbour at Dover, and they are all fairly close together. Access is restricted because of the cross-channel port at one end of the harbour, and the cruise terminal at the other. But the Prince of Wales Pier and Admiralty Pier both allowed public access, so I could get up close to two of the lighthouses, and take decent photographs of the remaining two.

Dover Harbour

Dover Admiral Breakwater

Dover Admiral Breakwater

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the South Pier was extended in several stages and renamed Admiralty Pier. At the end of the extended pier, a circular, white-painted cast-iron tower was built in 1908. It is seventy-two feet tall, with lantern and gallery, and displays a white flashing light which is visible for twenty miles.

At the end of the Prince of Wales Pier, which separates the inner and outer harbours, there is white-painted circular stone tower, with a galleried lantern and a weathervane on top. It is forty-six feet tall, and displays a very quick-flashing green light, which is visible for four miles.

Dover Prince of Wales

Dover Prince of Wales

At the west end of the outer breakwater, there is a slightly tapering, white-painted cast-iron tower with lantern and gallery, about seventy feet tall, which was built in 1909. It displays a red, occulting light inside the harbour, as well as a white light outside the harbour, which is visible for eighteen miles.

Dover Breakwater Knuckle

Dover Breakwater Knuckle

Lastly, on the breakwater knuckle, there is another white-painted circular cast-iron lighthouse. Built in 1909, it is fifty-two feet tall, and mounted on a rectangular stone platform. Its light flashes four times every ten seconds, red inside the harbour and white outside, which is visible for thirteen miles.

On the route out of Dover I failed to notice that NCN Route 1 crossed the main road to follow a dedicated cycle lane alongside the opposite carriageway. As a result, the pavement I was following suddenly ran out, the road rose sharply uphill, and it turned into a dual carriageway. I was terrified as pairs of long vehicles overtook me, blowing their horns and pinning me against iron railings.

At the next roundabout I managed to rectify my mistake and from then on tranquillity was restored. There was one more steep climb beyond Samphire Hoe, on a dedicated track away from the main road, and for once I made it to the top without getting off to push.

Spirit of KentI stopped for a pint of Spirit of Kent bitter at the aptly named Lighthouse Inn at Capel le Ferne. It has a dome-roofed tower in one corner, although there is no suggestion that it ever functioned as a lighthouse. I sat outside with the bike, and found a cheap room for the night at a pub in Hythe, about five miles from home. It seemed daft somehow, but I wanted the return to Dungeness to feel real, rather than a symbolic gesture arranged for the day after I returned home.

The final descent into Folkestone was entirely familiar, although all remnants of the market, fun fair and ferry terminal of my childhood had long been erased. The harbour had undergone a massive program of regeneration, and the work had been completed, ready for reopening that very weekend.

Folkestone

Construction of the pier and harbour at Folkestone was completed in 1820, but it was only after the harbour was taken over by the South Eastern Railway Company in 1842 that a lighthouse was considered.

The first light, known as the Horn Tower Lighthouse, had a square wooden tower, and was built in 1848. It served until it was dismantled in 1941 to make way for a gun emplacement.

Folkestone

Folkestone

When a new breakwater was built in 1860, a tapering stone lighthouse was added, twenty-eight feet tall, with white-painted lantern and gallery. It flashes a white light, twice every ten seconds, increasing to every two seconds in fog. The light is visible for ten miles.

Since the closure of Folkestone as a cross-channel passenger port in 2000, the future of the harbour had been uncertain. However, both the former harbour railway station and lighthouse have since undergone considerable renovation, with a new walkway making access to the lighthouse very simple.

From this point onwards I had no need for maps or guidebooks. I cycled to Sandgate through a recently landscaped seafront park which had been a tiny toll road when I was a kid. All along the path are climbing frames and playground equipment that I have brought my own children to on many a sunny weekend.

I made it to The Swan in Hythe by five o’clock. I phoned home and between us, Emily and I concocted a plan. She offered the children fish and chips, somehow convincing them that our regular fish and chip shop was shut, and that they would have to drive into Hythe instead. When they walked through the park from the car park into the town, I was sitting under a tree ready to surprise and greet them.

We sat on the beach eating fish and chips out of the paper. There were lots of hugs and hand holding and many smiles. But very few words were needed.

2 Comments

  1. Steve Richardson

    I listened to you being interviewed this morning by Justin Webb on the wireless. Your story is similar to mine although I have not done the bike bit. Born and bought up in Birmingham, about as far from the sea as is possible in England, every summer we had the family holiday in St Margaret’s Bay at my Aunt and Uncles. Laying in bed at night it was magic to see the room lit up by the South Foreland Lighthouse. I don’t suffer from M.S. but have a similar issue with something called CANVAS. Did I hear Justin say you were blind in one eye? Hard luck, so am I.

    Reply
    • The Beacon Bike

      South Foreland is a lovely lighthouse – I’ll be there next weekend. Thanks for getting in touch – I’m very lucky, because with relapsing and remitting MS, symptoms come and go. I lost the sight in my left eye for three months, but it has gradually returned with steroids. All the best. Ed x

      Reply

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